Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
If you ever wanted to read Jane Austen's books with a male lead... you might have to pick up this book. Austen's books are quiet routs of Victorian era manners; this is a rather noisier affair poking holes in the idea of the staid or wholesome English boy, making his way in the big world via The Grand Tour...
Synopsis: Henry Montague is a hot mess, really. He's privileged and the son of the Lord of Standards and Manners practically - frequently lectured, with fierce physical punishments to back up the cutting words - but this only spreads out the veneer of rakishness further and thicker. Henry is a good time boy, always laughing, drinking, smirking, and hitting on anyone with a pulse. It's his last hurrah, however; his bestie, Percy is off to law school after this Grand Tour they're embarking on. Felicity, Henry's sister, will be "finished" and ladyfied at her school, and Henry himself will be working side-by-side with his father, running the estate... all of which sounds like a living death, frankly. So, it's time to have fun, fun, fun 'til Papa takes his freedom away.
Henry is reckless - and sometimes stupid - with drink, with terror, with pain. He makes the worst choices, about people about money, and about his various vices. With some deliberate nudging, soon their Grand Tour goes grandly off the rails. They lose the minder Papa Montague sends along with them... and then the trip really begins. Unfortunately, this is still Henry we're talking about, so it's not all fun and games - highwaymen, robbery, dodgy conveyances and dodgier people mean their trip careens from bad to worse. As a manhunt gets underway across the continent for them, Henry has one more awful, heart-stopping surprise. Percy, Henry's darling best friend, reveals a truth and Henry realizes he doesn't know him that well after all.
Broken-heartd, terrified, and determined to wrest something good from this journey before his life ends, Henry pushes onward. Persistence - and a whole lot of pigheaded stubbornness has this gamer gambling at last to find the best answers to the biggest questions in his life, to help a friend, and to find his happy ending.
Observations: I delighted in my first introduction to The Grand Tour years ago in Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevemer and Patricia Wrede, followed by The sequel, The Grand Tour: Or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia. It was a story of two closely sheltered young ladies discovering the large grand world, and it was a lot of Regency with pixie dust.
This is not that book.
... rather than a sheltered Englishman seeing the world for the first time, Henry is a jaded... jade. The boy is a tightly wrapped bundle of neuroses and emotions pinging all over the place, a boiling stew of hormones and appetites. He's likely rather a more realistic illustration of young manhood (READ: rakishness), but I found his privilege and ignorance somewhat exhausting. If you love Regency novels and adore the reformed rake trope, this will work out well for you. Henry's vices sometimes overwhelm his virtues, but there is truly a tender love story going on, true diamonds amongst the glitter and the paste... which is a good thing, or many readers would have drop-kicked him.
Henry is queer as well as being young, so his confusion is multiplied. Percy is half Barbadian, and I found it interesting that he's described as having skin the color of sandalwood and ungovernable hair, but that's it - he seems to face no prejudice or scrutiny on the continent - at least not for being browner than is fashionable. As there were quite a few persons of African ancestry wandering the British Isles and the Continent all the way from Medieval times, this is wholly accurate, but I did wonder what Henry thought of his being different, since he had an opinion on EVERYTHING. Even Percy seemed rather quiet about himself; I found myself wondering if he ever wondered about the family his father took him away from when he brought him to England then up and died...
With his self-centered, narcissistic, shallow hedonism covering his wounds and poor self-esteem, Henry's a lot of work, and you've got to dig before you get to anything worthwhile with him. Which is true of us all, I guess. But, his sister and his friend don't give up on him, even though he takes them straight into trouble. With combined ingenuity, they take themselves back again - so there's an 'ever after' to look forward to - maybe a hard one, but the right one.
Conclusion:Henry is like a male Emma in Jane Austen's world - frivolous, silly, privileged, very attractive and charismatic, and sometimes dangerously ignorant of the true harm he can cause. But, like Emma, Henry is redeemed through the love - tough and merciful love - of a good friend.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find all 528 pages of THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
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